Culture Quickies

Korean Expert: Understanding Korea Through Proverbs #03

It has been said that to understand a people, you must know their proverbs. There’s a lot of merit to this argument, especially since proverbs tend represent a common set of values, beliefs and ideals for a culture.

Each week, I’ll teach you brings you two Korean proverbs that you can use in everyday life (and sound like a complete boss). This is for all you wanting to know more about the language than the “Annyeong” and “Saranghae”, wanting to get deeper into the psyche of the typical Korean.




가는 말이 고와야 오는 말이 곱다
Phonetic: “Ganeun mari gowaya oneun mari gopda.”

Literal: “Words going should be beautiful, if words coming are to be beautiful.”
Meaning: “If you want to hear and have nice things, then you should say and give nice things.”

This kind of mutual exchange of goodwill, of being nice to other people is pretty common in all cultures. A lot of religions teach their followers this, an example being Christianity’s “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. It makes logical sense too. People want to be around other people who are nice to them. We also feel like we should help out people in need who have helped us out before.

The Korean version of this proverb doesn’t just command people to think or behave in a certain way; it gives a reason and a reward. If you want nice things to come your way, you should be nice yourself. In this manner it seems to hint at the concept of Karma, perhaps from the strong Buddhist influences that Korea has felt during its history.

This proverb doesn’t tell you to be passive, or to treat others like you treat yourself.
This proverb tells us that kindness begins with you.



Image result for 한 우물을 파라

우물을 파도 한 우물을 파라
Phonetic: “Umureul pado han umureul para.”

Literal: “If you’re going to dig a well, then dig one well.”
Meaning: “If you’ve decided to do something, see it through to the end.”

Like many countries in times before pipes pumped millions of litres of fresh water to homes, there was a huge reliance on streams, rivers and wells. A surveyor (or a mystic, depending on your religious persuasion) would see the lie of the land, position of rivers, valleys and previously dug wells to determine where the groundwater, deep underground, was closest to the surface.

Once the position was marked, men would start digging. And digging. And digging. And digging.
Sometimes it would only take a few days, other times it would take longer.
The question would constantly be asked: should we keep digging here, or choose a different spot and start again?

The danger is that if they kept digging, they might spend weeks without any kind of result. But then again, if they keep changing their minds and dig hundreds of shallow holes, they won’t ever get any results either.

This week’s second proverb teaches us to persevere. We shouldn’t give up so easily and try to start over with something else; if we have committed to something, we should see it through until we are absolutely sure that it won’t work. A little bit of perseverance in the whole that we have is perhaps what we need, not a new hole.